Last night’s WWE Payback was billed as “The First Pay-Per-View Of A New Era.” The idea of a new era for WWE was first introduced 10 weeks ago upon the return of Shane McMahon. Shane told Vince that he had lost his touch, that his best days were behind him and that he didn’t know what today’s fans want from WWE. He was speaking very obviously for the fans that often voice their displeasure in WWE’s creative decisions. He also told Stephanie that she and her husband have run the company into the ground. That they’ve driven down ratings, caused the stock prices to drop and were even responsible for the well known rash of injuries the roster suffered over the past year. Shane wanted to come back to usher in a new era for the fans and to keep WWE viable for a fifth generation of McMahons and beyond. Vince quickly tested how much Shane really wanted it by booking him against The Undertaker in Hell In A Cell at WrestleMania. If he won, he would take over and if he lost his new era would never come to fruition. Shane risked life and limb in his quest yet came up short. The new era was over before it started, until the following night on Raw when he was given his prize despite his loss.
Much has been made of Shane’s month in charge. New match-ups, new stars, new opportunities. The show has been better and slightly different. A little more focus on the talent and the wrestling, significantly less focus on The Authority and the McMahon’s. Back to last night at Payback, The New Day opened the show, poster boys for the idea of a new beginning. They were followed by Enzo and Cass, possibly the next great tag team, as well as The Vaudevillians, entertaining in their own right. The New Day watched on with glee as the two new teams fought for the right to the next crack at the WWE World Tag Team Champions. Unfortunately the match was cut short after a legitimate injury to Enzo. Thankfully he is alright and was released from the hospital last night. That unfortunate turn of events put a bit of a stall on the show for a few minutes, but then the night took off.
Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn proceeded to ignite the Chicago crowd by bringing their incredible rivalry to a WWE pay-per-view for the first time in a singles match. They gave us everything we could have asked for in this match. Everything that earned them their opportunity in WWE was on display as a bloody nosed Kevin Owens was able to take the first step in avenging his loss at WrestleMania. He stuck around for the next match to do commentary, which almost equaled the entertainment value of his match. A new era with Kevin Owens being displayed so prominently would be very welcome. Sami Zayn eventually made his way back to ringside to get his hands on Owens once more and the two cost Cesaro the match and possibly set up a big match for Extreme Rules.
Dean Ambrose won the battle of the talk shows over Chris Jericho in a fun match that is a good step forward after Dean’s loss at WrestleMania. His trademark intensity was showcased as well as Jericho’s penchant for humor. Some think it’s a little over the top but I love whiny, goofy weasel Jericho and that’s what we got, complete with post-match temper tantrum. At this point I felt like the show had been really great with the Enzo accident as the only hiccup, as hiccup that was the fault of no one. Charlotte and Natalya clashed in a match for the new Women’s Championship, accompanied by Ric Flair and Bret Hart respectively. Seeing Bret walk down the ramp with Nattie and be introduced was pretty emotional and it was really great to see him in a WWE arena again. To many, myself included, he comes off as a little too bitter and negative about everything WWE does, but it really is his home and he belongs there. This is where things got a little interesting.
Charlotte and Natalya put on a really great match. It was exciting, it was back and forth and the two made me believe either woman could have walked out as the Women’s Champion. I thought it was more likely Charlotte would win, but it made sense that with The Hitman evening the playing field, Natalya could finally overcome her. After 13 great minutes, the finish came and it didn’t feel like something that should be part of a new era in WWE. As Charlotte applied the Sharpshooter on Nattie, Charles Robinson called for the bell despite Nattie never tapping. He ran out and put the belt back in the ring and got out of there. It was an homage to the Montreal Screwjob which is an almost 20 year old story that eventually needs to be left in the past. It was cool to see Bret and Nattie put Charlotte and Ric in Sharpshooters to close the segment, but that finish left a bad taste in my mouth for what was a really good match.
The big announcement by Vince McMahon over who will control Raw was up next, Vince came out to a very hot crowd and he managed to turn the temperature up even higher, reveling in their reactions. He brought out Stephanie to plead her case and she was eventually interrupted by Shane, who made his claim to control as well. The segment felt a little odd in that Stephanie was getting booed while listing things she’d done that fans actually like. It was odder still as Shane really doesn’t have a whole lot to take credit for yet, although there is no doubt the fans love him. I include myself in that group. After roughly 20 minutes of the McMahons talking and arguing, Vince named them both in charge. This was another segment that felt completely against the grain of what a new era should be. An overly long, overly drawn out McMahon family segment where they are making themselves the biggest story. We all know Shane and Stephanie won’t coexist for long and the a feud for true control will eventually take place, but do we really need more of the McMahon family fighting for control of WWE? Is that new for anyone that didn’t start watching last night? Maybe they’d have more time to showcase a secondary women’s story if there was a little less of the McMahons.
Now onto the main event, AJ Styles challenging Roman Reigns for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. This was a fresh match with a new face getting his first crack at WWE gold outside of the Royal Rumble match. It’s fitting that AJ made his debut in a WWE ring facing off with Reigns as he was thrust into the championship picture relatively quick. The big story in this match wasn’t as much about the belt as it was about what Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson were going to do. There were so many ways they could have gone with this story. They could have formed a faction with AJ. They could have formed a faction with Reigns against AJ. Finn Balor could have been a part of it although WWE would have no desire to make him a heel on his debut. In the end they gave us the most basic possible story with them helping AJ and the Usos helping Roman. They canceled each other out and Roman won with a spear. That didn’t feel new either.
Just because the story of the main event itself didn’t feel like a push toward a new era, it was actually a really good match. AJ Styles performed as brilliantly as expected and I thought Roman Reigns had a great match as well. A lot of fans don’t like Roman because of his work rate, but not everyone is going to be Sami Zayn or AJ Styles. There need to be different types of workers. If everyone was the same it would get boring really fast. I thought Reigns and AJ did a great job of telling a story of two totally different styles. AJ’s speed and quickness worked for him while Roman’s strength and power countered. AJ even technically beat Roman twice during the match, once by countout after an incredible Phenomenal Forearm through the table and once by DQ for a low blow. Shane and Stephanie stepped in to order the match to continue to a true conclusion and eventually we got one.
Now I know sometimes I rush to judgement and end up having to rethink my initial stance sometimes. I think there were a few aspects of Payback that fell woefully short of being part of a new WWE era and I wish they’d done a better job with those things. But from start to finish it was actually a really good show. Every match was good and I felt several performers were elevated during last night’s show including Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, Dean Ambrose, Natalya and most importantly AJ Styles. He looked the part of a main event performer and is even already booked in what I assume is the main event at Extreme Rules. They should be able to tell a great story for Roman and AJ over the next three weeks leading up to that match.
Maybe not everything about WWE has changed since WrestleMania and I’m sure not everything about it will. But if they can continue to put on shows that deliver from beginning to end every month and showcase all of the talent they have, that is a new era I’m ready to sign up for.
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